Worthwhile Papal initiative

Cecilia Bartoli sings in the Sistine Chapel.

Last Friday, a woman sang in the Sistine Chapel. Not just any woman of course, but a star operatic mezzo-soprano, Cecilia Bartoli.

This falls a long way short of the message of Michelangelo’s powerful Sybils on the ceiling, or my suggestion that Pope Francis appoint some women cardinals. Canon Law (which has required them to be priests only since 1917) would have to be changed to allow this; but he’s an absolute monarch and can legislate what he likes. Call them coadjutors or cardinal deacons or something. Still, Ms. Bartoli is progress, and as Michelangelo knew, cultural symbols matter.

The favour went both ways. By report, the Sistine Chapel choir sank to an embarrassment in the 20th century, and were labeled the “Sistine screamers”. Ten years ago, a leading professional like Ms Bartoli would not have wanted to sing with such a poor group. The revival is not due to Francis but to his predecessor Benedict (Josef Ratzinger), a reactionary but with German standards. In 2010 he appointed a good choirmaster, Monsignor Massimo Palombella, a Salesian priest; and, more important, widened the pool of eligibility by a factor of 10,000 from Italian priests (n ≈ 45,000) to male Catholics from any country, boys and adults, married or not (n ≈ 600,000,000). The invitation to Ms Bartoli is surely Francis’ work.

The choir, with Bartoli, have released a CD of Christmas music, some of it recently unearthed from the Vatican archives. This looks worth a try as a seasonal gift.

The profits go to the Pope’s personal charity. This looks to be a small scale operation, largely among the street people of Rome. You get the cutting-edge accountability of regulations adopted in 1409 by Alexander V. Alexander was a Pisan antipope, whose main contribution to the end of the Western Schism was dying conveniently soon, thus reducing the problem of multiple popes by a third. Relying on his paperwork is, in American terms, roughly equivalent to having the statutes of your college signed off by Jefferson Davis.

Still, if you are going to contribute to anybody’s slush fund, Pope Francis and his almoner Konrad Krajewski are a reasonable bet.

Cecilia Bartoli singing Mozart’s Laudate Dominum in Dresden in 2001.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web